Take my initial encounter with Agni South Indian Cuisine in Sterling, about 45 minutes from downtown Washington. I’d heard good things about the restaurant and hoped to strike silver, if not gold. When I showed up on a recent Friday at noon, however, I found the door locked and a seemingly empty dining room. A call to the restaurant went unanswered, so I went to the pizzeria next door and asked the man behind the counter if he knew anything about the status of his competitor. The guy simply shrugged. I returned to Agni, where I noticed water flasks atop the tables, so I knocked on the door. This time, a server with a shy smile emerged from the back, unlocked the door and told a hangry companion and I to pick our own table.
Immediately, I felt better about my scouting mission. Agni passed my sniff test; pleasant cooking aromas wafted from the kitchen. The dining room also showed some attention. Thick wood tables and sturdy chairs lent a rustic touch, contrasted with a mango-colored bar and a transfixing design on the right wall: dozens of angular little dancers, painted black and arranged like musical notes. As we gained confidence in the storefront, the lone server handed out plastic menus and markers to circle what we wanted.
It’s been a tough road for Mahreen Aujla since she bought the space in February 2020, a month before the pandemic, and a family member suffered a debilitating stroke that summer. Agni is Aujla’s maiden restaurant but not her first business. Back in her native India, where she lived in Chandigarh, the capital of the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, Aujla owned her own ceramics company. The purchase of a restaurant was her attempt to elevate the Indian dining scene in Northern Virginia, where she’s lived since 2001 and also works as an IT consultant.
“I’m very picky about my food,” says Aujla.
So is Arivazhagan “Ari” Periyasamy, the chef recommended by the previous chef, who returned to India. Periyasamy is from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, studied cooking in Pondicherry and worked in hotels for six years, including the Chennai and Goa branches of the luxurious Leela Palace. He went on to work in the cruise industry for Carnival Pride, where he helped prepare meals for between 3,000 and 5,000 people a day. Before coming to Agni, Periyasamy, 33, cooked south Indian food at Chennai Express in Chantilly.
His pakora arrives, and it’s terrific, wispy onion strings whose chickpea flour coat is lit with green chiles, curry leaf and ginger. The sweet-spicy snack is charming, too, served in newspaper wrap in a little cone that doubles as table decoration for the minute or two it lasts before two of us make it disappear. And to think my pal and I were plotting Plan B when we showed up to locked doors at Agni!
We would also have missed mirchi bajji, fried battered jalapeños, a popular south Indian street food whose puffy golden jackets, made with gram flour, cushion the heat of the filling, which includes minced onions and (optional) roasted peanuts tossed with cilantro and lime. The yellow confetti on top is sev, bits of crushed noodles made with chickpea flour.
The assertive heat in some of my favorite dishes is foretold in the restaurant’s name. Agni means “fire” in Hindi. But the kitchen torches judiciously. Ask for the Apollo fish — and you should — and you can taste the fried tilapia and bell peppers, their flavors still clear after they’re tossed in yogurt charged with red chiles and yellow with turmeric.
Dosas float through the dining room, an edible parade of crisp pancakes rolled up like scrolls and escorted with a trio of add-ons: pale green coconut chutney, sunny tomato chutney and sambar, lentil vegetable stew. The lightness of steamed fermented rice cakes, or idlis, demonstrates why they’re so popular at breakfast and for grazing; fat in the center and tapered on the ends, the flying-saucer shapes are best submerged in a steaming bowl of zesty sambar.
Okra masala is another fine meatless dish, and an example of how Aujla sometimes involves herself in a recipe. Agni’s crisp-fried vegetable is finished with mango powder, the owner’s tangy secret. “I don’t like bland,” she says, careful not to step on the chef’s toes. “She treats me like a brother,” Periyasamy says of his boss.
An appreciation for spice helps to enjoy Agni, which deploys accents well. The base for the shrimp ulli theeyal springs from cumin, fenugreek, onions and more introduced to one another in a hot pan slicked with sesame oil. The flavors in the curry run deep and haunting.
Chicken dum biryani is served Friday through Sunday only. The labor-intensive dish starts by cooking rice with an A to Z of Indian spices and layering the grains in a sealed pot. (Aluminum foil works for the chef; in south India, a banana leaf might be pressed into service. In Hyderabad, biryani’s home, bread can seal the deal.) What comes to the table is a mound of saffron-tinted rice embedded with steamed chicken and guesses as to what makes each bite so memorable. Star anise? Rosewater? Yes and yes — and keep eating. Sweet, soft fried onions in the mix make it easy.
To attract a broader audience, the restaurant offers a handful of dishes from northern India. They include butter chicken, created in Delhi and, given the dairy lavished on it, one of the country’s richest pleasures. Agni’s version balances sweet with tang in the sauce, which washes over the tongue like liquid velvet.
Bread is the weak link. You won’t miss the flabby, undercooked garlic naan.
Service is relaxed. My first visit, I told a stranger to be patient while he waited for someone in charge to greet him and retrieve his takeout. More recently, Aujla was taking orders, shadowed by a trainee. “It’s very hard to get servers,” she later told me on the phone. “It’s been a struggle.” Like other businesses, restaurants have learned to do whatever it takes to attract labor and keep the lights on. Aujla, typically a presence on weekends, allows some staff to bring their young charge to the restaurant. (The child in the stroller near a rear table seems to enjoy restaurant life.)
Hanging near the entrance are framed words of inspiration. One reads, “Be your own kind of beautiful.”
Agni South Indian Cuisine takes the message to heart.
Agni South Indian Cuisine
46005 Regal Plaza, Sterling, Va. 571-325-2523. agniindiancuisine.com. Open: Indoor dining, delivery and takeout for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, for dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday: Prices: Appetizers $7.99 to $18.99 (for mutton), entrees $13.99 to $18.49. Sound check: 70/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; wheelchair-friendly restroom. Pandemic protocols: Employees are not required to wear masks, but all are vaccinated.